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Master Class for Progressive Writers – An Explanation

The deadline for applications for the Overland Master Class is coming up, and I wanted to explain further our thinking behind it:

1) Fiction (and all art) is about taking the world and turning it on a certain angle, so that your reader can see it afresh, and by implication see their own place within the world. It allows a rethinking of the world and where we stand within it.

2) What kind of world, then, is the fiction writer showing? This is an implicitly political question because it asks the writer to examine their own assumptions about the world as well as how they’d like to represent it. So what can we say about the world today? There are obviously a great many things, but if we look at it in its broad sweep, it has some pretty serious issues: the coming disintegration of the ecosphere and the changing climate, the new effects of the GFC (loss of jobs etc), the extraordinary exploitation of the underdeveloped world, the obsession with image (especially body image) that seems to swamp us, (add your own to the list…).

3) Fictions task is often – though not always – to represent these issues on a micro and emotional level: what is the experience of the farmer driven from the land due to lack of rain, the young woman afflicted with anorexia, the immigrant escaping violence in their home country, only to encounter it in the new one, the financial executive newly thrown out of a job and reassessing all their neo-liberal assumptions, the unhappy housewife who wants to leave the marriage, the experience of the activist who now finds themselves alone in the suburbs, their activist days past, and so on?

4) Importantly, through the structures of narrative, it makes us feel these things as well as think about them intellectually. Art is not simply an essay – it has its own laws and rules (narrative ones), which may also be attacked and broken (the avant-garde). In any case, it needs to offer more than purely an opinion. Otherwise why not write non-fiction?

4) What is not clear to us at the moment at Overland, is quite what the appropriate form for this kind of progressive fiction would be. Back at its inception, the Overland tradition was closely associated with Realism, more recently in the 1990s it championed Dirty Realism. We’ve experimented with speculative fiction (Issue 188 and soon again in 196). We don’t really have a set opinion at the moment, but we certainly want to foster discussion about these issues, and develop a group of writers who take part in that debate not just intellectually, but artistically: who say ‘Look what I can do.’

5) We thought we could organise the Master Class for people interested in such issues, which would look not only at the political aspects, but the artistic ones – or more properly, how to encapsulate the political ones in artistically satisfying forms. So we’ve invited the three writers – Cate Kennedy, Lucy Sussex and Tony Birch – to come and help progressive writers learn and discuss the art of fiction.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. I suppose the risk with outlining prospective and worth ‘subject areas’ for people to write about, Rjurik, is that it suggests we see ‘political fiction’ in terms of content, i.e. paying attention to the ‘big issues’. I like what you’ve suggested about the uncertainty of what form might best express critique, dissent, alternatives, but I worry that almost inevitably the notion of political fiction is linked either to content only (the notion that writing about global warming is ‘political’ whereas writing about toxic private lives is not), or to realism. Both of these are, presumably, hangovers from the CPA’s ostensible embrace of ‘socialist realism’, and perhaps also the revival of grunge in Australian writing in the 1990s. As a predominantly realist writer, I am struck by how forms of speculative, magic realist, and fabulist fiction seem to have strategies to confront ‘politics’ by making what’s familiar and taken for granted strange again, alien, disconcerting. That said, the class sounds as if it will as much about debates about ‘writing the political’ as finding forms and ideas that might express this concept – which in its own way is almost a project of discovery rather than instruction…

  2. The idea is not at all to be prescriptive about subject areas – which is why I mentioned, amongst other things, the unhappy housewife who wants to leave the marriage (i.e. toxic private lives). And yes, very much a project of discovery rather than instruction…

  3. Do you think part of the reason these questions are so difficult to address is the collapse of institutions that once linked the realms of the literary, the imaginative and the political?

  4. nstitutions and movements. If you think about the moments of great political art, they’re always during times of political interest. It’s no surprise that surrealism and the avant-garde (as subsets of modernism), for example, occur between the two wars. Nor is it a surprise the explosion of radical innovative art during the sixties. Not just in literature, but in film (the various New Waves (such as the French in film, led by radicals like Goddard). So I think that circumscribes the possibilities in some ways, but then again what else to do but to try new things? I think maybe the point is that the literary, imaginative and political tend to be united by these periods – each influencing the other. For example, radical movements, when they grow, become incredibly creative (think even on a minor scale to the relatively recent anti-globalisation movement, but even more obviously the guerrilla theatre of the sixties and so on). Just as artists become radicalised. In this context, it makes the Overland project such an interesting one – in that we are trying to maintain some kind of unity between the political and the aesthetic, in a world where that unity is unusual. Course I could be totally wrong…

  5. Re Kalinda’s question, I’ve just been reading, coincidentally enough, an article discussing the way that so many literary reputations and institutions associated with the Left have been recuperated into an entirely apolitical fashion. Thus we have awards linked to Judah Waten, KSP, Alan Marshall and Mary Gilmore that have no political connotations whatsoever.

  6. Not so sure if I agree that non-fiction functions to offer opinion. Much of what you are discussing eg structures of narrative and fiction's tasks belong to the genre of creative nonfiction, a genre which has been slow to be taken up in Australia. In the US, having attended the Nonfiction Now conference at the University of Iowa, I was delighted to hear presenters discuss how they addressed the challenge of writing the real, which involved engaging the reader to think and feel about intellectual concepts. This list, you describe, of what the fiction writer is showing could equally be applied to the creative nonfiction world – eg Helen Garner's Joe Cinque's consolation. An essay can also be art. I don't see the need to separate out the writing from the real from the writing of fiction. Perhaps progressive fiction can take up this challenge.

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